Soto: Northwestern should work to include Chicago-area youth in campus dialogues

Isabella Soto, Op-Ed contributor

Two weeks ago, I attended a sexual health training in downtown Chicago put on by the Illinois Caucus of Adolescent Health. Surrounded everyone from high school freshmen to folks well into their 30s, the training was like nothing I’d ever experienced.

The facilitators who led workshops never made it seem as though they knew more than anyone else in the room. There was no real distinction between “teachers” and “students.” We all contributed to the conversations equally, bouncing so many ideas off each other that a piece of butcher paper brimmed with “circle-back” topics collected throughout the three-day training. High schoolers taught our group about androgens and their use in hormone replacement therapy, before grad student interns discussed the proper insertion of an internal condom and collaborated with youth to brainstorm creative ways to ask for consent.

It’s incredibly easy to forget what it’s like outside a space surrounded by university students around the same age. Within the Northwestern bubble, it’s also painfully easy to write off or underestimate the importance of high school-age kids.

A number of organizations in Chicago focus on restorative justice and peace circles for youth, and many social justice collectives extend their work into younger communities. As a student body brimming with activists and always looking for ways to engage with both Evanston and Chicago, we should focus on bringing area students into some of the larger-scope dialogues we have on campus. Imagine a sustained dialogue-type circle, but featuring young voices.

I’m guilty of having low expectations for conversations with my three 14-year-old sisters simply because their faces are usually glued to phone screens, and they’re often unwilling to break from their jokes to have a serious conversation. Although college students are by no means exempt from such behavior, I’ve found myself to be a little less patient with young people. There’s a significant gap in what we think we can learn from young people and what we actually learn when put in spaces with young folks.

It may seem weird or inappropriate to learn about sexual health from teenagers, but it was actually one of the most valuable educational experiences I’ve had in my young adult life. Chicago-area youth may not necessarily be interested in hearing about all campus-related issues, but we truly underestimate what young people know about themes and issues that concern us at Northwestern such as diversity, community engagement and well-being. Working in an organization that focuses on adolescent health, I was amazed to see adults and professionals teaching health to adolescents and young people themselves being active agents in learning and helping spread this knowledge into their schools and communities.

Such a project would benefit both NU students and the community at large. We would create a space to learn about the experiences of high school-age youth and have an opportunity to sit back and listen to them.

There truly exists no culture like the one on a college campus. We’re a collective of young adults ready to have meaningful discussions. And although we might laugh at the notion that a 14-year-old Instagram star can contribute to a conversation about race, when was the last time that your dirty jokes or Snapchat use interfered with your capacity to have a meaningful conversation?

Isabella Soto is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.